In the mid-nineteenth century, the great age of railway building, Charles Dickens could not but be aware of their transformative impact on society. So he wrote about it often.
A new book has collected together many of his railway-themed writings and put them in one place for the first time. From the people, the landscapes, the construction works and even the food, Dickens wrote about the full package of the railway’s impact on society.
Dickens was though a strong supporter of the railway, so much so that he was once described by John Ruskin as being of the “steam whistle party”.
For Dickens, the railway was an enabler although later, a terror.
Apart from extensive touring around the UK and USA on his talking tours which were helped considerably by the railway, in the late 1850s, he moved to Rochester and commuted to London regularly on the railway.
Without the railway, Dickens tours would have been considerably smaller and potentially not even be something that he is today known for.
His fictional characters were not always positive though, being reflective of the public’s attitudes of the time and fears of the speed these new inventions could hurl people around the country. In one extract, Bradshaw’s Railway Guide gets particularly short shift due to the complicated railway systems of the time.
The book itself is a collection of essays and extracts from Charles Dickens’ writings on the topic of railways and the impact of their arrival on society. It’s possibly a struggle to understand just how massively the railway transformed society, from one where a journey was slow and difficult to one where it was quick and easy. The world got bigger in ways that would have been unimaginable a few years earlier.
Each extract in the book is introduced by the editor, Tony Williams, and usually with a nice drawing of the railways of the time, or cartoons about them.
The choice of writings ranges from published novels to his writings in his weekly magazine, Household Words, and as such the book can jump around a bit. Just as you get interested in one character, it’s on to a different one. Then again, that might encourage you to buy the full book the chapter was taken from.
The characters are richly described as you might expect, and his descriptions of the construction of the railways seem as relevant today as they ever have.
“Here, a chaos of carts, overthrown and jumbled together, lay topsy-turvy at the bottom of a steep unnatural hill; there, confused treasures of iron soaked and rusted in something that had accidentally become a pond. Everywhere were bridges that led nowhere; thoroughfares that were wholly impassable; Babel towers of chimneys, wanting half their height; temporary wooden houses and enclosures, in the most unlikely situations; carcases of ragged tenements, and fragments of unfinished walls and arches, and piles of scaffolding, and wildernesses of bricks, and giant forms of cranes, and tripods straddling above nothing. There were a hundred thousand shapes and substances of incompleteness, wildly mingled out of their places, upside down, burrowing in the earth, aspiring in the air, mouldering in the water, and unintelligible as any dream.”
What you’re left with is a huge appreciation for the impact the railways had on people’s lives and the richness of Dickens writing style.
The book, Dickens on Railways was edited by Tony Williams, Associate Editor of The Dickensian, and is available from Amazon, Foyles, Waterstones, from the Chales Dickens Museum, or direct from the publisher, or your local bookshop of choice.